Global paradox - a crowded earth but not enough babies

WashingtonWritten By: Bernd DebusmannUpdated: Dec 03, 2022, 09:27 PM IST
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The baby bust and oldster boom, also termed as global ageing by demographers, is a trend without precedent in human history. It affects roughly two-thirds of humanity who live in countries where the lifetime fertility rate is at or below 2.1 children per woman, the rate required to keep a population from shrinking.

Some time in November, the world’s population reached eight billion, a milestone that points to problems without apparent solutions. Among those problems: in many countries, there are too few babies while the ranks of old people are swelling rapidly.

The United Nations announced the eight billion figure on November 15 but, extrapolated from long-term growth data, it could have been any day of the month. It will never be known where baby number 8,000,000,000 was born.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, overall population growth is slowing and it will take 15 years for the next billion to be added, mostly from low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Philippines, Pakistan and India.

The growth rate has been uneven around the world. Industrialised countries are grappling with a problem you can summarise as baby bust and oldster boom. Low-income countries, which are projected to account for more than 90 per cent of global growth, have yet to figure out how to meet their growing numbers’ needs for jobs, health care, education, sanitation and water.

The baby bust and oldster boom, also known as global ageing by demographers, is a trend without precedent in human history. It affects roughly two-thirds of humanity who live in countries where the lifetime fertility rate is at or below 2.1 children per woman, the rate required to keep a population from shrinking.

That includes the world’s two biggest economies, China and the United States. Last year, the US Census Bureau, which counts the number of people living in the country every 10 years, reported that America’s population had grown at its lowest rate since the 1930s. China, which also conducts a once-in-a-decade census, reported its lowest rate since the 1950s.

Also Read | China to set up university for elderly to cope up with ageing population

In both countries, as well as in Western Europe, people live longer than ever. The world’s population of those over 65 is projected to double by 2050. In developed countries, a quarter of people will be that age or older, the group most in need of support, those over 80, is estimated to triple.

That means steadily rising expenditures for health care and pensions. How to cope with this is a problem just as complicated and challenging as how to cope with global warming. While global ageing and shrinking population growth will have a decisive impact on the 21st century, it has failed to fire the public imagination.

But it is worrying the Chinese Communist Party which in the 1970s shared widespread fears that China, along with much of the world, would run out of food and other resources to feed rapidly growing populations. 

Thus, it decreed in 1979 that Chinese couples were allowed to have only one child. Violations of the “one-child policy” led to fines, loss of employment and in some cases forced abortions. It was a massive experiment in social engineering to ensure that population growth did not outpace economic development in the world’s most populous country.

That fear proved unfounded and China ended the one-child policy in 2016 – a very rare, though implicit admission that the Communist Party had made a serious mistake. But the hoped-for baby boom did not happen and in May, 2021, a new policy encouraged families to have three children, another attempt to cope with a shrinking work force and ageing population.

But according to government statistics, the fertility rate is still way below the 2.1 percent needed to keep the population stable. 

Therefore, India is expected to surpass China as the world’ most populous country by next year, according to UN projections. At present, China has 1.452 billion people, India 1.417 billion.

The eight billion figure was reached thanks to advances in medicine, public health and more efficient farming. What is most striking about it, in my eyes, is how wrong experts were in the 1960s and 1970s when the great threat to mankind was seen as overpopulation.

A major role in stirring those fears was a book entitled “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University who won academic praise for work on butterflies and flowering plants. Ehrlich predicted that population growth would outstrip food supplies and result in world-wide famines.

The book, which sold millions of copies, was inspired by a visit Ehrlich made to New Delhi in 1966, when the city had a population estimated at 2.8 million. (It now has 32 million). The opening scene of the book describes a taxi ride through a “crowded slum area”. 

“The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people. Since that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”

As a result, he concluded, “hundreds of people will starve to death.” 

There have been numerous famines since 1968, most caused by droughts, climatic disasters of various sorts, and wars. The cut in supplies of grain and fertilisers as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine is the latest example. Man’s inhumanity to man has clearly been a greater threat than overpopulation.

More than half a century after the Population Bomb, it is obvious how wrong Ehrlich’s thesis was. But he was particularly wrong about India. Since 1968, the country’s population has more than tripled but by and large, Indians have grown richer and live longer. Fewer go hungry.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.) 

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